The Unsolved Case for Nature and Nurture

The theory of nature vs. nurture in the upbringing of children is a theme we have seen in several of Shakespeare’s plays. The theory questions to what extent a person’s personality and skill are inherited by nature or the extent to which they depend on the nurture provided in ones upbringing. The effects of nature and nurture are difficult to attribute and quantify in the real world where nature and nurture of a specific child cannot be isolated or recreated to be scientifically studied.

Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, introduces two characters, Miranda and Caliban, who have been almost completely isolated on an island for all or nearly all of their lives. This set up allows us to compare and examine how two children differ though nurtured in nearly identical ways. Shakespeare offers us a scientific control case of the theory of nature vs. nurture. But ultimately we are still left wondering, as many philosophers and scientists do today, are there any obvious conclusions to be made about the roles of nature and nurture?

Miranda, the daughter of the former Duke of Milan, arrived on the island as a small child when she and her father were sent away. Though she has few memories of her childhood in Milan, she seems to instinctively embody a sense of gentility. Prospero tells Miranda, “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and/ she said thou wast my daughter” (1, 2, 56-57); Miranda may have inherited her virtue and genteelness from her well-situated parents. When Ferdinand, the heir of the King of Naples and a man certainly familiar with noble culture, first lays eyes on Miranda, he wonders, “is (O you wonder!)/ If you be maid or no” (1, 2, 427-428). Having never been exposed to the culture and customs of Milan or Naples, Miranda still appeals to Ferdinand by her nature. (Though her father must have nurtured her with some of the customs he lived by as Duke back in Milan)

Caliban was born on the island to the now deceased witch Sycorax. Described as an “abhorred slave” (1, 2, 353) by Miranda and a “most lying slave” (1, 2, 344) by Prospero, Caliban seems to be half man, half monster. Prospero, speaking about Caliban, explains “stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee/ (Filth as thou art) with humane care, and lodged thee/ in mine own cell” (1, 2, 345-347). Prospero cared for Caliban in his own home, presumably how he cared for Miranda, and yet Caliban responds better to a whip than to kindness. Regardless of the nurturing Prospero tries to provide, Caliban is “a born devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick” (4, 1, 188-189)*. In this case, nurture cannot make up for what nature has already created.

In the 20th century, scientists like Naom Chomsky investigated how children acquire their language skills. Children do not merely copy what they hear which implies they naturally possess some innate language skills. But children who are not exposed to speech will not naturally talk. The ability to have and control language depends on both nature and nurture. We learn that Caliban credits Prospero with teaching him language: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse” (1, 2, 365-366). While he may not like or appreciate it, Prospero’s nurturance of Caliban certainly affected him and we cannot claim that Caliban is solely a product of his nature.

Miranda comes to represent a sort of innocence while Caliban becomes the embodiment of savagery. The characters are clearly contrasted, but which is natural? This is still a question debated in modern philosophy. The French philosopher Rousseau wrote in the late eighteenth century how children are naturally born good and can be protected from corrupt society. But in the well-known novel “Lord of the Flies,” written by William Golding in the mid twentieth century, we see how children are naturally savages; left to their own devices children return to a natural state of savagery. Prospero surely believes Caliban is savage by nature, but if savagery is the natural state of being, this would mean Miranda escaped savagery solely due to her nurturing upbringing. But if nurture has such a strong affect as to turn Miranda into a desirable maid, why doesn’t Caliban reap the same benefits from as Miranda?

On another level, Shakespeare sets up the contrast between Prospero and his brother, Antonio. Both men were born of high rank in the court of Naples but Antonio’s corrupt and villainous character usurps Prospero’s more quiet and intellectual nature. As Miranda points out about her grandmother, the mother of gentile Prospero and hostile Antonio, “Good wombs have borne bad sons” (1, 20, 120). Good women bear children that turn out both good and bad.

Prospero believes Caliban to be a “born devil” but if we are so subject to nature—subject to what we inherit—why do Prospero and Antonio differ so greatly in their qualities? Why was Alonso able to aid in usurping Prospero’s power but his son Ferdinand seems to love so simply and freely?

Perhaps Shakespeare is making a claim neither for nature nor nurture. Each effect can result in unintentional consequences. The notion that nature and nurture must be in opposition of each other is a modern one. Nature and nurture may act in support of the other or one may offset the other’s effects. What Shakespeare shows is that nature and nurture are certainly forces at play in determining the evolution of a child, but there is no sure reasoning as to which has the greater influence.

*This line is likely where the creator of the phrase “nature vs. nurture,” Francis Galton, found his inspiration.